Which Side I’m On

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The socialist revolution in Barcelona had been in full swing for months when bloody street battles broke out in May 1937. Having effectively governed the City of Counts since quelling the fascist uprising there a year earlier, the anarchist CNT-FAI and their allies now came under a vicious attack from their former Republican and communist comrades in the Popular Front, whose bourgeois and Soviet backers wished to exterminate the anarchists, halt the local revolution and prolong the war. We can see the battle lines in hindsight, but the attacks happened so suddenly that even George Orwell, who was in Barcelona at the time fighting with the anti-Stalinist POUM, had trouble identifying the enemy.

“No one seemed to have a very clear idea of what was happening,” he writes in his famous account of his time as a volunteer fighter in the Spanish Civil War.

There was a general impression that the Civil Guards were ‘after’ the C.N.T. and the working class generally. It was noticeable that, at this stage, no one seemed to put the blame on the Government. The poorer classes in Barcelona looked upon the Civil Guards as something rather resembling the Black and Tans, and it seemed to be taken for granted that they had started this attack on their own initiative. Once I heard how things stood I felt easier in my mind. The issue was clear enough. On one side the C.N.T., on the other side the police. I have no particular love for the idealized ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on. [emphasis mine]

I’ve never been in a civil war, unless you count Chicago. That war is more cold than civil. There are sides in Chicago nonetheless, and I’m not just talking about North, South and West. I mean there are sides among the people of Chicago. The battle lines are usually drawn along race, class and geography, which are increasingly the same thing in America. Generally speaking, there are the poor and the not-poor, the people of color and the white people, the powerless and the powerful. Because they rarely harass or kill any of the not-poor-white people, cops are rightly viewed by poor people of color as the guardians of the powerful. Police officers are given power themselves in order for them to do their grim work and, in that way, they become the powerful enforcers of not-poor-white power.

These facts are ugly and mean, but they are facts. Most Chicagoans already know what I’m talking about, and I suspect a majority in New York and Los Angeles know it, too. A lot of people who visit the Las Vegas Strip seem to be aware of it, which would explain the scene I came across only a few weeks ago.

My wife, my stepdaughter and I were making our way down the Strip, in search of a quick bite to eat before catching Britney Spears’s show at Planet Hollywood. We climbed the steps leading to a pedestrian overpass that crosses the Strip at Harmon Avenue and immediately encountered a crowd of people standing in a semicircle. At our end of the footbridge a police officer was arguing with a youngish black man. In the middle of the bridge another officer was struggling to handcuff a youngish black woman while what I can only assume was her little boy looked on with tears in his eyes. The black woman began screaming for help, which made the black man, who’d seemed relatively calm if a little worked up, take a swing at the officer. I can’t remember if his punch landed, but both men hit the ground and started wrestling.

As the black man and the officer scuffled, a white woman in the crowd pleaded, “Will no one help? Is there no man willing to help him?” It isn’t clear which “him” she meant, but the way in which she said it made it obvious to the rest of us that she meant the cop. I was at the back of the crowd, having just joined it, though I can confidently say that I would’ve still simply watched on had I been in the front row. In the end, no one stepped forward to help the black man, the black woman or either officer, though an onlooker eventually attended to the tormented kid.

The officer closer to us jumped off the black man, stood up and stepped back, drawing his Taser, aiming and then firing just as the black man lurched toward him. The man dropped to the ground with a thud and a black lady in the crowd turned away screaming “They shot him! They shot him!” Once the officer in the middle of the bridge had handcuffed the mother, he came over and helped the other officer subdue the man. The whole thing took less than a minute.

Why I or every “man” in the crowd did nothing but watch is obvious. By the time I came across the scene, the confrontation was well underway. Normally, in a functioning society, when you come across an officer of the law trying to arrest someone, you’re supposed to assume the officer is in the right and, if the officer is in trouble, help him or her. This is what we’re told happens in a happy world where the state is always good. But we do not live in a happy world.

Having reached the struggle in midswing, so to speak, the situation I encountered wasn’t black-and-white. On one side, you had a young black couple and their child, and on the other, you had two police officers. In the first second or two, the black woman was screaming as one officer pinned her to the pavement, her limbs bent at awkward angles, her child looking on close-by, as the black man argued with the other officer. When the two men started fighting, knowing nothing more than what I’ve just described, I froze. I didn’t know which side I was on.

Cops aren’t bad people, at least not inherently. In fact, they tend to be like everybody else. My father was a cop in Chicago, where one of my cousins still works in a suburban department. Another cousin works in a department just outside Kansas City. He and I pretty much grew up together. My family lived with his when we first moved to the suburbs, and we’ve been part of the same clique more or less to this day. We’ve partied together more times than I can remember and have even taken a few trips in tandem. He’s the reason I can say with confidence that cops aren’t bad people, not inherently.

By all accounts, Officer Miosotis Familia was not only “a good policewoman” but also a good woman, period — a good mother, a good daughter, and an outstanding member of her community. She didn’t deserve to be shot in the head by a violent schizophrenic as she sat scribbling notes in her squad car on the night of the Fourth of July. The attack was unprovoked directly and, thus, not in self-defense. Alexander Bonds shot Officer Familia because he hated cops — all cops, indiscriminately. He hated anybody who wore the badge, and in that he was wrong.

Hate the badge, not the person. The badge is what makes otherwise decent people do horrendous things. The badge, because its purpose is to enforce a racist and exploitative system, makes good people do racist and exploitative things, like kill unarmed black teens acting suspiciously, or fining and over-fining poor black motorists as a steady source of revenue. The people behind the badge know these things are wrong. They have mothers and fathers and grandparents. They know you’re not supposed to treat people differently based on how they look or how much money they have in the bank. And yet, too many police officers are harassing and bankrupting and killing innocent people every week for those very reasons. Again, they’re presumably good people, but it’s in their role as cops that they become sinister.

I trust my cousin as my cousin, but I don’t trust him as a cop. He holds a number of unsettling views as a cop, views which many cops openly express in the news and in press releases, views which he wouldn’t believe if he weren’t a cop. It’s the badge. Not long after my younger brother joined the Marines, he began uttering a few contemptible remarks himself. I figured it was to be expected from a newly-minted member of the armed forces, which are to U.S. foreign policy what police departments are to its domestic policy. The state teaches cops and soldiers whom to distrust and hate, and, filled with so much patriotism and a sense of duty and honor, they go on distrusting and hating the state’s enemies with gusto and pride, never questioning what they’ve been taught because, for them, to question the state is tantamount to treason.

Thus, why I froze on that bridge a few weeks ago. I cannot trust the state that distrusts people like me. I’m potentially target, and a victim, and I walk around fully aware that I am. I can’t forget it, since it’s a matter of life or death, specifically mine. Had I rushed in to aid the officer, I might’ve inadvertently become a zebra helping a lion capture another zebra. Worse yet, not realizing I was trying to help him, the lion might’ve added me to his dinner plate. Then again, had I rushed in to help the black man, I might’ve aided a criminal in fleeing arrest, which would’ve still made me a meal of one kind or another. I didn’t want to be any kind of meal to anyone, so I stayed out of it.

This is the state we’re in, and under. When the government turns its back on the everyday people it’s meant to protect and serve, a police badge becomes the Mark of the Beast and a cop’s morality depends on the individual wearing the badge. As a human being, I don’t instinctively fear any man or woman, but as a young, black, Latino man, I rightly tremble in the presence of a badge. I harbor no sense of race, ethnic or even nationalistic pride whatsoever — in fact, I despise such sentiments — but when I see a young black couple wrestling with men wearing badges on the Las Vegas Strip, I have to ask myself which side I’m on.

 

Featured image: A line of Las Vegas Metro squad cars outside a downtown casino (Tomás Del Coro/Flickr)

A Chicago writer now floating around Las Vegas, Hector is the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino "artivist" site based in his hometown. He also contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States. Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave .

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